Verbal slips and the intentionality of skills


Many have thought that exercises of skill are intentional. The argument of the paper is that this thesis fails to account for important types of mistakes and errors. In what psychologists and linguists call “verbal slips with semantic bias”, a speaker mistakenly switches, reverses, or blends certain conceptual contents. Nevertheless, the speaker has successfully exercised an intellectual skill, insofar as her slip uses concepts in conformity to semantic and logical rules. To flesh out how one might successfully exercise skills without doing so intentionally, the paper appeals to the idea of habit. Verbal slips thus show how human skillfulness has a considerably wider scope than is often supposed.

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  1. 1.

    See Stanley and Williamson (2001, p. 415), as well as the reply by Noë (2005, pp. 280–281).

  2. 2.

    By ‘intentional’, I do not refer to the generic feature of intentionality, i.e., of ‘aboutness’ or being directed upon an object. What Crane (1998) calls “Brentano’s Thesis” asserts that all mental states, including perceptions and feelings, share this general feature. Instead, ‘intentional’, as I am using it, refers to a restricted class of actions.

  3. 3.

    Here I follow Anscombe (1957) in holding that the descriptions to which a person is willing to accept the reasons-seeking question “why?” are descriptions under which her act is intentional.

  4. 4.

    I hereafter will use ‘ability’ and ‘skill’ and ‘rational capacity’ interchangeably.

  5. 5.

    According to Frost (2018), this is the view advanced in Davidson (1963).

  6. 6.

    I ignore the possibility of somebody, an actor perhaps, purposely emulating a miss or fumble, perhaps to enhance the artistic quality of a production, entertain audiences, etc. This would not count as a mistake at all.

  7. 7.

    Small discusses ‘abilities’ rather than skills, but as noted above, in the present paper I treat these ideas as equivalent.

  8. 8.

    I discuss this possibility further in Sect. 5.

  9. 9.

    Freud (1901) famously claimed that verbal slips were expressions of repressed mental states. I do not address this claim in the text, but a suitably qualified version of it is at least compatible with what is said here. Motley and Baars (1979) claim to provide some confirmation of Freud’s claim, by creating experimental conditions under which slips with content that involved anxiety or sex were more likely.

  10. 10.

    Empirical studies on slips have revealed numerous other patterns. When phonemes are switched or repeated, the result is more likely to be a word than a non-word (Baars et al. 1975; Nozari and Dell 2009). Furthermore, the slip is likely to result in words and phrases from the same grammatical category (i.e., nouns for nouns, verbs for verbs, etc) as the intended word or phrase (Nooteboom 1969).

  11. 11.

    Motley and Baars (1976) were able to create experimental conditions to elicit slips with semantic bias. They found that a subject was more likely to err, e.g., transform “get one” into “wet gun”, if the subject had just read word pairs semantically related to the anticipated error, e.g., “damp rifle” and “moist pistol”.

  12. 12.

    Hereafter, I will only discuss verbal slips with semantic bias, and so even where the full title of “verbal slips with semantic bias” is not used, it should be read as implied.

  13. 13.

    I read this quote as assuming the vehicles are understood by the one who manipulates.

  14. 14.

    Relatedly, Mele (2009) discusses the example of remembering seven animal names beginning with the letter G.

  15. 15.

    For virtue epistemologists, knowledge can be conceived as a genus of the broader species of adept performance or achievement (Greco 2003, 2009; Sosa 2007, 2009). Rohrbaugh (2015) defends this view against the charge that it commits a category mistake about achievement. There is a debate, discussed in Baehr (2006), about whether virtue epistemology should be cashed out in terms of character traits, such as open-mindedness and charity, rather than skills.

  16. 16.

    Hofstatder and Moser describe the “activation” of concepts. They mean this refer to a connectionist theory entitled the “spreading-activation model”. (Cf., Collins and Loftus (1975) and Anderson (1983) for the model itself, and Dell (1986) which applies this model specifically to verbal slips.) The spreading activation model does not rule out the account I give in the text, in terms of skills, as long as it is interpreted as describing the neural implementation underlying certain common-sense descriptions of mental phenomena, rather than a theory that eliminates the need for those descriptions altogether.

  17. 17.

    The remarks in this paragraph do not exclude other ways of drawing the same distinction. Kern (2017) emphasizes the normative relationship between the skill and its manifestations.

  18. 18.

    Douskos (2019) contrasts different sorts of “automaticity” involved equally in skills and habits.

  19. 19.

    The argument of this paragraph does not require that the agent finish the routine unintentionally.

  20. 20.

    Philosophers have objected to this example, and try to show that the driver is really acting intentionally after all. Firstly, Pollard (2006, p. 63) suggests that the driver’s action has an intrinsic means-end structure. Parts of the action point towards other parts, as well as the whole. For example, pressing the gas pedal on the car stands in a structured means-end relationship to putting the vehicle in motion. Secondly, Fridland (2017, p. 4345) suggests the possibility of “automatic intentions”. These are “triggered involuntarily” and do not “require consciousness or explicit attention” (p. 4345). I think that verbal slips avoid these sorts of objections, at least in part because they are basic misdirections in which a skill is being exercised that is different from the one that the agent intended. By contrast, the car example is a misdirection which consists in the same type of skillful performance as what the agent intended.

  21. 21.

    My assumption is that circumstances to which habits are linked do not have to be external to the mind.

  22. 22.

    Semantic associations can be contrasted with episodic associations which pertain to particular people and events. This distinction parallels that between semantic and episodic memory, which is outlined in Snowden (2015, p. 572).

  23. 23.

    My claim here is different from Luthra (2016), who emphasizes “non-rational capacities” that operate below the level of intention and choice (pp. 2276–2277). For Luthra, these non-rational dimensions of skill are not accessible to the conscious mind, whereas what I am describing under the habitual was once a matter of deliberation, attention, and choice, and could presumably be so again.

  24. 24.

    Dreyfus (2005) argues that certain uses of rules may be part of initial stages of learning a skill, but these drop out as expertise develops. While he does not explicitly use the idea of habit, this story of the acquisition of expertise seems compatible with habits as an explanation for certain types skillful performance.


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Correspondence to John M. Monteleone.

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Monteleone, J.M. Verbal slips and the intentionality of skills. Synthese (2020).

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  • Skills
  • Intellectual skills
  • Intentional action
  • Mistakes
  • Errors
  • Verbal slips
  • Habits
  • Psychological explanation